‘Quite Franklin’ – Stereotypical Views and Benjamin Franklin’s Vicious Comments about Germans

During the 18th century, one of the U.S.A.’s most famous Founding Fathers, Benjamin Franklin, expressed his contempt for immigrants from German states to colonial America. In general, there have been stereotypical views about Germans in the U.S.A.  

Mass immigration has always represented a contested issue in North America as in almost every country of the Western world. On the one hand, a huge number of people nowadays demand stricter immigration laws. On the other hand, many people support a liberal immigration policy.

The U.S.A. is commonly referred to as ‘a nation of immigrants’, though colonial North America was predominantly settled by migrants from England or Britain during the 17th and 18th centuries. After the U.S.A. was founded, the Congress of the new American republic passed several federal legislation including the Naturalization Acts in 1790, 1795, 1798 and 1802. These acts only addressed immigration indirectly. Instead, as the name makes clear, they focused on the process of naturalization.

During this period (i.e. between the 18th and 19th centuries) these naturalization laws were comparatively generous. Broadly speaking, they allowed foreign residents in America to gain relatively easy access to citizenship as long as these persons fulfilled specific criteria.

Besides an oath of loyalty and the completion of the period of legal residence, the criteria included the renouncement of former and / or other allegiances and of all foreign titles. Moreover, the candidates for naturalization had to convince a court to have a “good moral character” and to believe in “the principles of the Constitution of the United States.” However, only “free-born white persons” could be naturalized.

Correspondingly, notwithstanding that free blacks were given citizenship in some states of the U.S.A., these Naturalization Acts particularly excluded slaves, a lot of free blacks, American Indians and indentured servants until the naturalization laws were changed in the 19th century. Today, the exclusion of certain ethnic or foreign groups is usually conceived of as ‘racism’ or ‘xenophobia’.

But the white people of colonial British America and the early American republic also viewed other groups of British migrants (as well as their descendants) and non-British immigrants with suspicion or contempt. At this point, we can, for example, point to the aversion to 18th-century immigrants from German states. One of the people who expressed dislike for them was Benjamin Franklin.

This illustrious figure among the U.S.A.’s Founding Fathers worried about large German communities in Pennsylvania. Before turning to Franklin’s vicious comments about Germans, we should elaborate on how Americans in the past perceived people from Germany.

Beer, Sauerkraut and ‘the Adipose Society’ – American (Stereotypical) Views and Images of Germans

From the late 17th century to the mid-19th century, masses of people came to North America from the German states, which formed a German nation state in 1871. Germans were generally associated with beer and such an association is still common. Not by chance. Well-known American beer brands have a German origin. In this context, it is worth mentioning the founder of the Miller Brewing Company, Frederick Miller (1824-1888), and Adolphus Busch (1839-1913), the co-founder of the brewing company Anheuser-Busch.

Scan
‘Germans and Their Beer’ – A 19th-century lithograph that is taken from page 49 of the anthology From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: E pluribus unum ? (Ed. Peter Freese, 2005).

Apart from this, Germans have been regarded as embodiments of gluttony, overindulgence or obesity. Appropriately enough, a 19th-century American lithograph depicts stereotypical Germans. We see, for example, an obese couple, transporting beer barrels. The girl sits on one barrel, while the boy appears to drink beer.

As far as the overindulgence or obesity issue is concerned, it is remarkable that in 1963 the American TIME Magazine published an article about (West) Germany with the title “West Germany: The Adipose Society.” A few passages of this article read as follows:

“Following the early ’50s, when the postwar boom set off what Germans call the Edelfresswelle, the gorgeous gobbling wave, buttocks and bosoms have expanded even more rapidly than the economy, and doctors have recognized two universal ailments: Doppelkinnepidemie, double-chin epidemic, and Hängebauch, or bellyhang.”

Parts of the article are certainly based on some stereotypical views.

Needless to say, more threatening images or views of Germans emerged in the U.S.A., when the two World Wars broke out. Then, the German word Sauerkraut was also replaced by the English term ‘liberty cabbage’. Long before the 20th century, Germans had made themselves unpopular among Americans with a British background by, for instance, going to the park on Sundays to play loud brass music and do exercise, which the Germans called ‘Turnen’.

During the colonial period many of the people from German states moved to Pennsylvania. Eventually, in the mid-18th century the colony of Pennsylvania was one-third German. Because of this fact, Benjamin Franklin reacted sharply.

‘These Palatine Boors’ – Franklin’s Malicious Comments about Germans in Pennsylvania

Franklin expressed his contempt for the immigrants from German states. He stated the following in one letter to Peter Collinson (1694-1768), a Fellow of the Royal Society in Britain, on 9 May 1753:

“I am perfectly of your mind, that measures of great Temper are necessary with the Germans: and am not without Apprehensions, that thro’ their indiscretion or Ours, or both, great disorders and inconveniences may one day arise among us; Those who come hither are generally of the most ignorant Stupid Sort of their own Nation, and as Ignorance is often attended with Credulity when Knavery would mislead it, and with Suspicion when Honesty would set it right; and as few of the English understand the German Language, and so cannot address them either from the Press or Pulpit, ’tis almost impossible to remove any prejudices they once entertain. Their own Clergy have very little influence over the people; who seem to take an uncommon pleasure in abusing and discharging the Minister on every trivial occasion. Not being used to Liberty, they know not how to make a modest use of it;…”

His writings contain more malicious comments about Germans, as a part of his essay “Observations Concerning the Increase of Mankind” (1751) demonstrates:

“And since Detachments of English from Britain sent to America, will have their Places at Home so soon supply’d and increase so largely here; why should the Palatine Boors be suffered to swarm into our Settlements, and by herding together establish their Language and Manners to the Exclusion of ours? Why should Pennsylvania, founded by the English, become a Colony of Aliens, who will shortly be so numerous as to Germanize us instead of our Anglifying them, and will never adopt our Language or Customs, any more than they can acquire our Complexion.”

He clearly feared the dominance of the German language in Pennsylvania.

His main concern was that the Germans would not adopt the English language and English customs. On 12 August 1753, Collinson suggested some remedies in a letter to him:

“Hints Humbly proposed to Incorporate the Germans more with the English and Check the Increase of their Power

1st To Establish More English Schools amongst the Germans.

2dly To Encourge them to Learn English Lett an Act of Parliament pass in Great Britain to disquallifie every German from accepting any Place of Trust or Profit Civil or Military Unless both He and His Children can speake English inteligibly.

3d To prohibit any Deeds, Bonds, or writeings &c. to be Made in the German Language.

4 To Suppress all German Printing Houses that print only German. Half German half English in a Page of Books or publick News papers To be Tolerated.

5th To prohibit all Importation of German books.

6 To Encourage the Marriages of Germans with English and Contra by some Priviledge or Donation from the Publick.

7ly To Discourage the sending More Germans to the Province of Pensilvania When Inhabitans are so much Wanted in Georgia, North Carolina and Nova Scotia &c.”

Franklin later responded in another letter in 1753, giving answers regarding the proposals.

At the beginning of the letter, he advised careful measures: “With regard to the Germans, I think Methods of great tenderness should be used, and nothing that looks like a hardship be imposed.” What is especially noteworthy is his answer to the sixth proposal:

“The sixth Proposal of Encouraging Intermarriages between the English and Germans, by Donations, &c. I think would either cost too much, or have no Effect. The German Women are generally so disagreable to an English Eye, that it wou’d require great Portions to induce Englishmen to marry them. Nor would the German Ideas of Beauty generally agree with our Women; dick und starcke, that is, thick and strong, always enters into their Description of a pretty Girl: for the value of a Wife with them consists much in the Work she is able to do. So that it would require a round Sum with an English Wife to make up to a Dutch Man the difference in Labour and Frugality. This Matter therefore I think had better be left to itself.”

To put it mildly, from today’s point of view, his statements were extremely politically incorrect.

Sources:

Freese, Peter (Ed.). From Melting Pot to Multiculturalism: E pluribus unum ?. Berlin et al.: Langenscheidt, 2005.

Gerber, David A. American Immigration: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 

 

 

When Colonial America Rose from ‘Albion’s Seed’ – The British Roots of the U.S.A.

During the colonial period in the 17th and 18th centuries, North America was predominantly shaped by four major waves of migration from England or Britain.

The United States of America is commonly considered ‘a nation of immigrants’. For a few centuries countless people from various different countries have been streaming into the U.S.A. to leave their old lives behind and to live the American dream. Indeed, from the point of view of many immigrants, this ‘land of opportunity’ has always been an object of desire.

Because of the coexistence of several groups from different cultural, ethnic and religious backgrounds, some famous concepts or ideas have emerged over time. One of them, in particular, stands out – namely the idea of ‘the melting pot‘. With respect to this notion, the U.S.A. is – in the words of the online dictionary Merriam Webster – “a place where a variety of races, cultures, or individuals assimilate into a cohesive whole.”

But both this idea (or myth) of the melting pot and the aforementioned commonly used phrase ‘nation of immigrants’ may distort that in the 17th and 18th centuries North America was predominantly settled by people from Britain (mostly from England) as well as their descendants. Their traditions and views, to a high extent, proved influential in shaping colonial American culture.

The historical impact of the British or English on America is described in detail by the American historian David Hackett Fischer in his book Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America (1989). According to Fischer, the first of the four waves of British migration roughly started in 1629.

Prior to that, some people from England, needless to say, had already come to the Americas. By, in metaphorical terms, slowly planting ‘Albion’s Seed’ in the New World, they laid the foundations for the four major migration waves from Britain.

‘Albion’s Seed’ Was Slowly Planted – The Early English Ventures and Attempts at Settlement in the New World

After Christopher Columbus had ‘discovered’ America in 1492, English ships occasionally embarked on voyages to the New World. Despite these early voyages of explorations, there was apparently not so much enthusiasm for oversea expeditions to the Americas in the first years of the 16th century. However, during the second half of the 16th century England decided to venture into the New World, where the Spanish and Portuguese colonialists had found gold and silver.

Especially English merchants were interested in breaking the Spanish overseas monopoly since the vast land of America provided important resources and goods like sugar, tobacco, timber or tropical fruits. The merchants’ efforts received support from the English crown under Queen Elizabeth I (b.1533, 1558-1603).

Moreover, Queen Elizabeth I commissioned the famous English sea captain and privateer Sir Francis Drake (c.1540-1596) to attack Spanish ships and Spanish settlements at America’s Pacific coast. It should be added here that Drake as well as the English naval commander Sir John Hawkins (1532-1595) engaged in the slave trade in this period.

The queen also granted the explorer Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c.1539-1583) a patent to plant overseas colonies. Eventually, in 1583 he claimed Newfoundland for England. Therefore, Newfoundland became the first English possession in North America. Nevertheless, his attempt at colonization finally failed because he and his ships were lost at sea on the return journey.

Later, another famous Englishman, the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh (c.1554-1618), Gilbert’s half-brother, established an English settlement on Roanoke Island in 1585, which is today part of the U.S. state of North Carolina. Historical sources point out that this new area was named ‘Virginia‘ in honour of Elizabeth I, the ‘Virgin Queen’. Ultimately, the settlement only lasted a few years.

Although England’s early attempts to colonize parts of the New World failed, thirty English settlements were set up from 1580 to 1630. Among them was the first permanent English or British colony in North America at Jamestown (in present-day Virginia), which was founded in 1607.

Notwithstanding that the English population in the New World constituted only one of several groups there, the English people there paved the way for England’s future settlements and the migration waves from Britain. Metaphorically speaking, these English people slowly planted ‘Albion’s Seed’.

‘Albion’s Seed’ Began to Grow and Developed into ‘A City upon a Hill’ – The English Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans

Quite a few textbooks about American history usually emphasize the Puritans, Reformed English Protestants. As their name ‘Puritans’ indicates, they intended to ‘purify’ the Church of England from – in their view – ‘Catholic’ practices. Their migration from the eastern counties of England took place between about 1629 and 1640. Subsequently, the Puritans settled Massachusetts Bay.

We should not equate these Puritans with the Pilgrim Fathers, as they were called, even though they also held Puritan beliefs. In general, the Pilgrim Fathers were religious ‘Separatists’ who broke away from the English state church, the Church of England. Hence, their main aim was to gain religious freedom.

Roughly speaking, they had exiled themselves to the Netherlands, before they sailed on the famous ship Mayflower to America. Finally, they arrived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1620 – that is, prior to the start of the above mentioned Puritan migration wave. By the way, the ‘first Thanksgiving‘ can be traced back to the feast or harvest meal, which was given by the Plymouth settlers in 1621. Yet, in regards to this event, myths, legends and facts blur.

At any rate, the Puritans, by contrast, were still members of the Church of England. Only during the reign of King Charles I did they leave England in masses. From their viewpoint, the king felt attracted to the Catholic rites they hated. Alongside social and economic issues, the king’s attitude towards religion certainly was a contributing factor for the Puritan migration to America.

Adhering to the doctrines of Reformed Protestant Calvinist Orthodoxy and the belief in predestination, the Puritans were determined to establish a deeply religious and God-fearing community without interferences by outsiders. Furthermore, they strove to create a new Zion. To achieve their goal, the people in Massachusetts (or other parts of New England) followed strict religious rules as well as codes of law and order. Within the community,  the law was supposed to reflect biblical principles.

One of the leading figures of the English Puritan community, John Winthrop (1588-1649), alluded to the determination to establish a new Zion in Massachusetts by mentioning for the first time the well-known phrase “city upon a hill” in his sermon ‘A Model of Christian Charity’:

“For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us…” (This quotation is derived from a few passages from the Sermon on the Mount in the Gospel of Matthew 5. 14-15.)

Winthrop, a longterm governor of Massachusetts Bay, wanted the Christian colony to serve as a model of order and morality for humanity.

Ever since, the phrase has been referred to the U.S.A. as a whole. It is an example of expressions concerning American exceptionalism. Unsurprisingly, several US politicians / Presidents have employed this phrase in their speeches.

If we use our metaphor again, through the migrations of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Puritans ‘Albion’s Seed’ began to grow. Until the end of the 18th century it continued to grow because of three other waves of British migrants.

‘Albion’s Seed’ Kept Growing, or the Other Major Migration Waves from Britain – the Aristocrats, the Quakers and the Immigrants from the British Borderlands

On the one hand, when the English Civil War(s) commenced in 1642, a number of  Puritans retuned to England to support the Parliamentarians in the fight against Charles I and the Royalists. On the other hand, a second major migration wave to America occurred from roughly 1642 to 1675. This wave carried royalist aristocrats and gentlemen mainly from England’s south and west. Most of them were younger sons of English aristocratic families.

Their American destination was Virginia. Here the aristocrats and gentlemen formed an elitist and hierarchically organized society. They also had particular ideas of liberty and government such as the concept of freedom as a condition of independence and the conceptions of minimal government and self-government. After all, during the founding period of the U.S.A. at the end of the 18th century, several descendants of these gentlemen or, more precisely, their ideas exerted a huge influence on the U.S. Constitution.

Other characteristics of this society encompassed an allegiance to the Anglican faith and a strong sense of honour. Interestingly enough, the majority of the white population in Virginia consisted of indentured servants as well as landless or poor whites.

Afterwards, two additional major migration waves from Britain brought many English Quakers and a high number of immigrants from the Northern British borderlands to America. From about 1675 to 1715 the Quakers – who had lived in England’s North Midlands before their migration – resided in the Delaware Valley (around Philadelphia), while later, from roughly 1717 to 1775, the people from the borderlands of northern Britain moved to the Appalachian backcountry.

Fischer Albion's Seed
Statistics regarding the four major migration waves from Britain to America. This table is taken from page 787 of David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed (1989).

For instance, the Quaker community was founded on a remarkable work ethic, a Christian notion of spiritual equality and a pluralistic idea of reciprocal liberty. The latter  represented a Christian concept, embracing all humanity.

It entailed religious freedom or “liberty of conscience”, as the Quaker’s most prominent member, William Penn (1644-1718), worded it. Notably, for the Quakers, liberty of conscience even applied to ideas they believed to be false. Suffice it to say, in this context, that these conceptions were or have been influential in American society.

As a result of the other migration waves from Britain to America, ‘Albion’s Seed’, so to speak, kept growing besides, for example, other migrants from Britain, German Pietists in today’s state of Pennsylvania, Dutch settlers in ‘New Netherland’ (i.e. areas of the present-day states of New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware as well as outposts on Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania), French Huguenots and African slaves. Yet, trouble loomed among the British colonists.

Big Trouble among the British (Regions) in Colonial America

Undeniably, these groups of colonists shared striking characteristics. That is, they migrated from Britain, spoke English and were Christians. In spite of these shared characteristics and their familiarity with traditional British or English rights like trial by jury, the protection of property rights and the right of representative government, the British groups of migrants were culturally different from one another. Each of them highly influenced the cultural identity of the respective settlement region.

Nonetheless, even within the settlement regions internal crises arose occasionally. Apart from these internal crises, the major cultures in British America did not get on with each other from the beginning. We may infer the early British colonists’ hostile attitude towards one another from the following statements:

In 1651, a Puritan judged Virginians: “I think they are the farthest from conscience and moral honesty of any such number together in the world.”

Many years later, in 1736, a Virginian, William Byrd II, viewed Puritans with contempt, as some passages in one of his letters show: “They have a great dexterity in palliating a perjury so as to leave no taste of it in the mouth, nor can any people like them slip through a penal statute…A watchful eye must be kept on these foul traders.”

Judging from the Puritans’ and the Virginians’ stated opinions, they hated the Quakers who were said to “pray for their fellow men one day a week, and on them the other six.”

The Quakers, in turn, despised the Puritans in New England. At the end of the 18th century, a Pennsylvanian Quaker labled them as “the flock of Cain.”

Additionally, the Quakers, Puritans and Virginians alike expressed their dislike of the borderers from the north of Britain by calling them savages, barbarians, ‘Vandals of America’, an “unlearned and uncivilized part of the human race” and “a spurious race of mortals.”

The settlers of the backcountry equally disdained the aforementioned groups. (These statements can be found in Fischer’s Albion’s Seed on pages 821 and 822.)

All in all, there was high potential for big trouble.

On many occasions, their mutual antagonism deteriorated into violent regional conflicts. Correspondingly, as far as the regional cultures of British America were concerned, during the colonial period America neither resembled ‘a cultural melting pot’ nor ‘a United States’, even though the migrants came from the same part of the world and had striking characteristics in common. Regardless of these conflicts, the British roots of what became the U.S.A. are indisputable.

Sources and Further Reading:

Cannon, John. Ed. Dictionary of British History. Rev. ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. 

Fischer, David Hackett. Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America. New York, and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

Hannan, Daniel. How We Invented Freedom & Why It Matters. London: Head of Zeus, 2013.

McDonald, Forrest. Novus Ordo Seclorum: The Intellectual Origins of the Constitution. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 1985.

Unger, Irwin. These United States: The Questions of Our Past. 3rd ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 2007.

Popular history books by freelance editor Emma Marriott and the libertarian historians Thomas E. Woods and Brion McClanahan can also be very helpful.